Schools in the Capistrano Unified School District opened Thursday with fewer students in classrooms, scores of unfamiliar substitutes and disordered schedules, as hundreds of striking teachers took to picket lines in a labor dispute.
Attendance in the 51,000-pupil district was down substantially, with about 39% of students in class, according to preliminary estimates. About 220 regular classroom teachers — 12% of the teaching force —- crossed picket lines and 600 substitutes were hired to provide additional classroom supervision, said Julie Hatchel, a district spokeswoman.
Some students who arrived on campus decided to leave and were released to their parents. But the atmosphere inside schools was mostly calm and orderly, with few reported incidents, Hatchel said.
On some campuses, students began their day in the gym to receive room assignments. Classes in some grades were combined.
In an e-mail to parents, Tesoro High School Principal Daniel J. Burch said students were seated in classrooms within five minutes of the day’s start and each room had a credentialed teacher.
Olivia Noceda, a Tesoro junior, was one of about 15 students who stayed away from class and spent the school day supporting teachers on the picket line, bringing them four dozen doughnuts.
“We feel like teachers do so much to support us, so this is our little bit of thanks to help them,” said Noceda, 17.
“It was more of a bonding experience than I realized it would have been,” she said. “We usually see teachers during the day, go home and turn in our homework, but today I felt like we were friends and that we were all connected.”
At Aliso Niguel High School, Principal Charles Salter said sophomores and juniors studying for upcoming Advanced Placement exams were being led by seniors, along with substitute teachers. In other classes, instruction centered on life skills, including personal finance lessons on buying new and used cars and determining personality types and suitable professions.
“The campus is quiet and the substitute teachers are working with kids,” Salter said in an update posted on the school website. “One student told me that he was so surprised at how calm the campus was. He thought it was going to be chaotic.”
Outside classrooms, there were a few reports of striking teachers attempting to block substitutes from entering campuses, but the protests were mostly peaceful, district and union officials said.
Leaders of the Capistrano Unified Education Assn., which represents 2,200 teachers, said strikers turned out in force at each of the district’s 56 campuses, waving signs and chanting slogans such as “recall the board,” referring to the district’s Board of Trustees.
Facing a $34-million budget shortfall, the board in March imposed a 10% pay cut and other reductions in benefits on teachers. The teachers union wants the pay cut to expire June 30, 2011, and for other benefits to be restored if new state funding comes through.
Both sides had scheduled an afternoon meeting Thursday to try to reach a deal.
Union leaders said the strike would continue Friday if no agreement is reached.
Joy Kelly, a third-grade teacher at Arroyo Vista Elementary in Rancho Santa Margarita, walked the picket line at her school from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. She said morale among striking teachers was high.
“We’ve had so many parents and kids come out and support us and there are tables overflowing with Starbucks and fruit platters,” Kelly said.
“Most of us would rather be in class teaching,” she said, “but as I tried to explain to my students, sometimes we have to make decisions that are hard but that we know are right.”